Like almost everything bad for us, there’s something strangely addictive about social comparison, says Megan Tatum.
Whenever I log onto Twitter, I feel almost compelled to click on the profiles of journalists I know are depressingly impressive. It feels like a sort of self-flagellation I can’t quit staring at tweet after tweet as they share their latest commission, inevitably in one of the big glossy magazines that languishes on my dream publication list.
Where do they get their ideas? How do they strike up these mythical relationships with editors? Where do they find the time?
It’s bad for my mental wellbeing on a good day. But in the last few weeks, it’s been enough to turn me into a weepy, overly-defensive mess.
Like so many freelancers, a chunk of my regular income streams have all but disappeared under lockdown. I don’t know when or if they’ll come back. That’s stressful. Which means even when I have days with work to do and deadlines to meet, I’m less productive, my attention apt to wander down social comparison rabbit holes.
Social media makes comparisons worse
I’m not alone. Bored, lonely and frustrated, we’re spending around double the time on social media that we were before lockdown. When so many of us are feeling vulnerable about our careers it’s a perfect storm for misery.
The things is, our brain isn’t built to separate the sensible comparisons from the ridiculous ones. Before social media that wasn’t so much of a problem as we had a much smaller pool of people to draw comparisons with. But now we can wake up and within 30 seconds be scrolling through hundreds upon hundreds of faces, a situation that leaves me genuinely holding myself and my own achievements up against those of a New York Times staffer that’s just been shortlisted for a Pulitzer. Or even just people lucky enough not to have had their work affected by this pandemic.
This comparison won’t make you work harder, it won’t make you more disciplined, and it won’t make you more productive – it’ll just make you unhappy.
So, how can you quit?
Well, I may as well rip off the band aid first, the best thing you can do is completely shut down all your social media accounts. It’s the only way to really remove temptation and doing so can reportedly lift your happiness levels as much as getting a pay rise. Even if it’s temporary it could make a big difference right now.
But if stepping away altogether isn’t a possibility, then at least start using social media more mindfully. Last week I deleted all the apps off my phone so at least I now have to type in the website address. By the time I’ve done that I’ve often realised it isn’t a good idea and put the phone down anyway. You could also use one of these purpose-built apps to limit the time you spend on social media. If you’re serious, I’d recommend Flipd which locks the app after the designated time slot and won’t let you back on, whatever you do.
When I find myself locked in a vicious comparison cycle, I’ve also started trying really hard to vocalise it. Saying out loud the fact that I feel rubbish because a freelancer I’ve never met and have no real knowledge about has just got a Guardian Long Read published does wonders for making me realise it’s completely unhelpful. Even more so when my boyfriend looks up utterly confused and asks me why on earth I care.
I’m also making a big effort to take all that energy I typically spend on comparisons and ploughing it into celebrating my own small wins instead. Each week I set myself a few attainable but meaningful goals, that centre around things I can control: it could be signing up to a free course on website design, researching five companies to contact regarding their content needs or brainstorming feature ideas that’ll work for a specific dream publication once this is all over. Ticking these off gives me a sense of accomplishment and more importantly focuses my attention on me and my own progress.
The truth is of course that none of these changes will entirely stop me, or you, comparing ourselves to the success of others. I still feel inexplicably drawn to those Twitter users and their latest frontpage splash. It’s human nature. But each time I do I try to take a deep breath, shut my eyes for a few seconds and remember my brain is playing tricks.